At the Hollywood-style awards ceremony last night for $3 million string theory and biomedical research prizes, it was announced that Yuri Milner and Mark Zuckerberg will now start funding something similar in mathematics, called the Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics. According to the New York Times:
Yuri Milner, the Russian entrepreneur, philanthropist and self-described “failed physicist” who made a splash two years ago when he began handing out lavish cash awards to scientists, announced Thursday that he was expanding the universe of his largess again: This time, he will begin handing out $3 million awards to mathematicians…
For the new math award, Mr. Milner and Mr. Zuckerberg, the co-sponsor of the math prize, will decide who gets the money, in consultation with experts. Mr. Milner declined to say how many mathematicians would be chosen, but there could be quite a number of windfalls in store: for the physics price, there were nine inaugural winners, and for the life sciences prize, there were 11.
I’ve written extensively about the “Fundamental Physics Prize” and what I see as the worst problem with it (heavily rewarding and propping up a failed research program). While many physicists are privately unhappy about this prize and its effects, few prominent ones are willing to speak publicly with their name attached, since this kind of mouthing-off could turn out to be personally extremely expensive. Ian Sample at the Guardian has a story today, which quotes a “prominent physicist who did not wish to be named”:
One prominent physicist who did not wish to be named said the huge sums of money could be used better: “The great philanthropists of the 19th and 20th centuries, like the Rockefellers and the Carnegies, did not create prizes – they created universities and research institutes that have enabled thousands of scientists to make great breakthroughs over the succeeding decades.
“By contrast, giving a prize has a negligible effect on the progress of science. A few already well-recognised people get enriched, but there is little value added in terms of the progress of science compared to the multiplier effect of creating new institutions for scientific research.”
The Guardian does quote one critic by name, but it’s just the usual one.
The physics prize has turned out to be extremely narrowly targeted at one particular subfield of physics, and from what little I know of the life sciences, the prizes in that area seem to be also narrowly targeted (US biomedical research aimed at curing diseases that most afflict those in the developed world). I’m highly ignorant about life sciences research, but it seems striking that the 6 $3 million winners in this field were all men.
I have no idea how Milner and Zuckerberg will go about choosing the $3 million winners in mathematics, and whether this new prize will end up being narrowly targeted to a certain sort of mathematics research. If so, it may have very significant effects on what kinds of mathematics get done. Based on the other prizes, it seems likely that the winners will be mostly prominent US academics, people already well-rewarded by the current academic star system. I don’t see any reason to believe that these kinds of financial awards will allow such mathematicians to do work they wouldn’t otherwise do, so the main argument for the prizes is that the money (and Academy Awards-style ceremonies) will help make them celebrities, and that this is a good thing. One can predict that public criticism from prominent US academics may be rather muted once the checks start coming.
Even if the Milner-Zuckerberg prize does end up focused on the best mathematics research, I still think the whole concept is problematic. The US today is increasingly dominated by a grotesque winner-take-all culture that values wealth and celebrity above all else. While mathematics research, like the rest of academia, has been affected as a star system has become increasingly part of the picture, this field has been somewhat immune to celebrity culture. While people typically think that what mathematicians do is perfectly respectable, they don’t understand much about it and aren’t especially interested. Milner and Zuckerberg want to change this by turning mathematicians into celebrities, but I don’t see any reason to believe this is going to lead to better mathematics.
Update: Here’s the statement from Milner about the planned mathematics prize:
Yuri Milner said: “Einstein said, Pure mathematics is the poetry of logical ideas. It is in this spirit that Mark and myself are announcing a new Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics. The work that the Prize recognizes could be the foundation for genetic engineering, quantum computing or Artificial Intelligence; but above all, for human knowledge itself.”